Friday, March 13, 2009


last week, i went to the field with an organization doing work in Kanakapura, about an hour south of Bangalore. the folks at the org conducted a survey in the villages of this area to ask individuals (mostly women) what barriers they feel to accessing healthcare. the resounding response was income -- many of these women have lost their husbands to HIV/AIDS, and since villages carry high rates of illiteracy and it is highly unusual in Indian rural life for a widow to remarry, they have not only lost their husbands but their sole source of income. as a result, many widows (some of whom are my age or even younger than me) turn to prostitution for income, which thereby continues the spread of the disease and can take their lives as well.

the organization has responded with, among other projects, an income generation model. the most impoverished women were identified, as well as the widows, and collected in each of 3 villages to create artisan businesses. the intent is to relay a skill to the widows, provide them with clients and income, in the hopes that the businesses can be sustainable someday. clients place their orders from the central org in B'lore, and its employees deliver the orders as well as the supplies necessary to complete them. the hope is to move to complete independence, from taking orders to keeping stock to tracking down (and purchasing) supplies for each village enterprise.

the first village we visited, Oochally, houses a group of women learning beadwork and embroidery skills. they are currently working on orders for saris, handbags, journals and even quilts. the youngest of the three enterprises, this village project has only been up and running for a year and a half. the number of challenges facing them had honestly never occurred to me before. simple barriers intensely slow down the learning curve -- the women have never been educated, are quite illiterate, and therefore cannot count. this also means that they cannot measure, or keep tally of their stock as they make it. and while simply teaching them to count and measure sounds ideal, it is in practice far more difficult to achieve. there are also issues of extremely limited infrastructure available within the city, electricity issues, holidays, management, and more other challenges than i can relay in one sitting.

the second village, Hosur, houses women working on block printing of saris, shirts, shawls, you name it! although these women have been working for about double the time as those in Oochally (around 3 years), their work thoroughly impressed me. i will certainly be placing an order of my own someday soon! perhaps in part to their extremely shrewd manager (also a native of the area) compared with the managers in the other villages, this group functions like a well oiled machine. it is in fact hard to find enough orders to keep them busy! they just completed a huge order for a wedding, and even completed that successfully. not to mention that the work is truly beautiful... i kicked myself repeatedly for forgetting my camera. it also went a long way to demonstrate that the strength of the women's skills can only be as good as those of the manager :)

the final village, Kodihalli, houses women working on paper products -- notepads, greeting cards and even wedding invitations. as the oldest project in the income generation initiative, these women have perfected their art. they make their paper from scratch (so it's 100% recycled!). they dye them, cut them, bind them, add accents... very impressive. what completely floored me about this group is their internal organization. the other two groups complete tasks as dictated by their manager. this group is so self-sufficient that they have organized themselves without a third party even needing to suggest who should do what. they have itemized every part of their product-making process, and divyed up the tasks according to natural skill. after seeing the challenges facing the newer projects, i cannot stress how intensely impressive this self-management is! the only barrier facing this group currently is acquiring clients... something all those involved are hoping to address in the near future.

it is worth pointing out that while these enterprises were started to create income, and therefore increase potential to afford healthcare and offer an alternative to prostitution.... many of the women are still resorting to either extra-marital affairs or prostitution without payment. shockingly, by receiving income elsewhere, the only perceivable change in sexual action has been removing the need for payment. i suppose there is an awfully intimate / loving / supportive aspect to sexual relations that having an income cannot replace, given that these women cannot remarry. but because such well-intentioned and inspirational projects are in fact doing little to curb the proliferation of AIDS within the villages, it definitely leaves me feeling exasperated. the bulk of these problems are so insanely complex that it might take the entirety of my time here to navigate them. which means i've definitely made the right decision by coming :)

you may have noticed that while this work was intended to address health access problems, it has travelled in a very different path since. as interesting as i found textiles and artisanry to be, it was certainly not what i came here looking for. granted, issues of gender emplowerment and education and other broader issues of interest are hidden within there. but it is fairly obvious that this line of work is a pretty big departure from my previous path, and my intended path here. i would say that an equivalent challenge has appeared in literally every organigzation i was speaking to before i came. there have been SO many factors that i have been rather blindsided by since arriving and learning more about all of these orgs -- as i said to my parents, there seem to be many many options.... but whether any can be described as a GOOD option still remains to be seen. it really depends on how willing i am to stray from access to medicines for infectious disease, how important immediate impact may be, and a variety of other challenges i had no way of predicting while still in Canada.

suffice it to say, the jobhunt has been exhausting! and at times demoralizing... but at other times, inspiring. i think i have my mind sorted out on where i would most like to work, and for now it is full speed ahead on that route! i shall keep y'all posted. in the meantime, tomorrow i'm off to Tumkur for more field time with another org. more stories to come -- have a great weekend, y'all :)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

prima facie politics.

caveat: because this is a highly contentious issue, i want to stress that i do not wish to offend anyone with my post, regardless of religion, nationality or beliefs. i am also not trying to enter a hateful discussion about controversial global issues. i am, however, curious to hear your thoughts on this topic... particularly if you disagree with me! nothing like a respectful discussion to clear up confusion :)

i have been reading a book called In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce, a non-fictional account of Indian society in its entirety: economy, government, politics, corruption, castism... it really covers the kit and caboodle. it is one of the more unbiased books i've read, and what i am enjoying most about it is Luce offers objective (and sometimes harsh) descriptions and still somehow establishes his affection and respect for the country.

i'm roughly halfway through the book, and what is extremely disturbing are the growing similarities between the Hindu-Muslim history and the current situation in Gaza. it is far more complicated than i'm about to explain, but in a nutshell the current religious feud in India seems to stem from Indian politics:

a political party, the BJP, holds a strong Hindu nationalist stance (read: only Hindus are Indian), and gained popularity in the late 80s and early 90s on this platform. in 1992, BJP members created riots because of a mosque in a city Ayodhya, which they claim was built on a Hindu temple previously destroyed by Muslims in the 1500s. they also claim Ayodhya is the birthplace of Ram, a prominent religious figure of Hinduism. it should be noted at this point that many of the BJP's claims have never received any academic or scholarly support, nor any empirical evidence of any kind.... including the claims about Ayodhya. for reasons i still do not understand, this minor detail goes largely unacknowledged within India society -- even though most have accepted that the BJP rewrote textbooks used in the Indian education to include unsupported claims.

in response to the mosque placement where a temple was allegedly previously burned (500 years ago), the BJP burned down the mosque in 1992. riots ensued, and 3000+ Muslims were killed. a decade later, a train carrying Hindus through the state of Gujarat was burned and many Hindus were killed. in response, the BJP began the now infamous Gujarat riots of 2002, which tortured and killed numerous Muslims. just a little snippet into what i mean by response:
"Mobs gathered around and raped the women, then they poured kerosene down their throats and the throats of their children and threw lighted matches at them. Hundreds stood by and cheered these gruesome incinerations, which symbolised revenge for the burning of the train passengers in Godhra. The male family members were forced to watch their wives and children burn to death before they too were killed."

to date, the two religions are bitterly unresolved over the true rights of Ayodhya. as i mentioned before, the situation is actually far more complex than i'm making it out to be here. but the following parallels have been gnawing at me:
*both sides of the conflict use previous points of history, no matter how dated, to justify virtually any action in the present
*both sides of the conflict wholly demonize the opposing party, and refuse to acknowledge that atrocities have been carried out by BOTH parties
*the punishment rarely seems to fit the crime

while the vague similarities are disturbing enough, what has been bothering me much more is how differently this information has been relayed to me in the past. to my knowledge, my entire immediate and extended family is 100% Hindu; no other religion has yet penetrated it. we are also Brahmin, which i objectively understand creates a higher stake to support the BJP nationalist views (since we directly benefit from them). and yet, the tidbits of information i've gathered from my extended family on the Hindu-Muslim divide have very obviously been a one-sided account. and i don't expect that it's specific to my personal experiences or conversations; many others are probably receiving (and accepting) equally biased explanations for the current crises around the world.

my intent is not to anger BJP-supporters, and i'm definitely not questioning why i feel that i may have been misled in the past. yet as with the situation in Gaza, it seems so blatantly clear that innocent people need to stop being brutalized... regardless of religion or nationality. and i think it may be up to the younger generations to do our due diligence and read as many perspectives as possible before passing judgement on the history of our people.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


hello from b'lore! many thanks for the phonecalls / emails / msgs.... i am slowly working my way through the responses, so you should be sure to hear from me soon! my apologies if i missed you entirely before i left, it was a whirlwind of multitasking at the finish line. you will definitely hear from me while i'm here though... i just need a little more time!

so i have arrived, and though it has only been a day or so, it really feels like i never left. i was preparing myself mentally for the overwhelming experience that landing in delhi was. don't get me wrong, i love love LOVE delhi, and it will always have a very special place in my heart. everything i say about it, i say with utmost love for the city :)

but. the airport chaos, the asshole autowallas who wouldn't take me to my interview, trying to find my way back to an apartment i'd only seen for 10 seconds entirely sleep-deprived.... it was a very intense experience last year. this time was NOTHING like that! the airport is insanely modern, the people (and by people, i mean men) were helpful instead of being creepy and gawking at my body. i also really appreciate that B'lore has road names, and that locals actually know what these names are AND know where they are. delhi was entirely landmark-based, and while there is still a lot of that in B'lore, it still comes with clear neighbourhoods and names. and if that all wasn't enough.... the numbers go in order! imagine that?! i'm being spoiled here. not to mention my cousin Arjun, who really might be the most helpful human being on the planet... and my grandparents! i should have realized that b'lore = spoonfeeding, especially compared to delhi. i also understand for the first time ever why everyone refers to delhi as so unfriendly! i obviously stick out as "from foreign", which is pretty much guaranteeing that i'll get ripped off or worked over in delhi. my ajja and i went out on an excursion yesterday, and ppl were actually FRIENDLY despite my foreign origin! my jaw dropped in shock. to the delhi expats reading this.... y'all NEED to come visit. it's like a little piece of home within india :)

also, i've never returned to india so soon after a trip; the last trip ended a 10-year stretch of no india visits! which is playing a huge part in feeling like i never actually left. i'm back to the same routine i had in b'lore last year, down to the arguments with my Ajja about how long one human being can stare at a Sudoku puzzle (he likes to mock me!) :)

the job front is insanely positive already. i've had two interviews so far, and have three left. i also have two days in the field set up to see the practical side of the work for two orgs... i'm SO nervous! especially since i do not speak a word of the local language here, Kannada. my family feels confident that i can pick it up fairly easily, especially with its similarities to Konkani, but i'm still super nervous about it! but in that super excited, giddy kind of nervous way :)

i have also decided to be vegetarian for the month of March. when i moved to delhi, i thought i would also be vegetarian. you may recall that i lasted about 3 days before i realized it was one of the WORST places to avoid meat.... moghulai meat is maybe the most delicious food i've ever tasted. it was akin to living in a city with an open bar, and swearing off alcohol. the south, however, has wayyyy more options for vegetarians. so i thought i would avoid meat for March no matter what, and if it turns out i'm mentally making a list of food unique to the area that i'm missing out on (like i was in Delhi!), i'll reconsider in April.

what is absolutely hilarious about this little promise of mine, is that my (entirely vegetarian, won't even cook meat) grandmother is unsupportive! i thought at least here, i would get some support, versus my father lovingly taunting me with chicken pakoras 20 minutes after my new year's declaration to be vegetarian in 2007 :) but alas, my grandparents are rather unhappy with my decision, and it makes me laugh heartily every time it comes up. with my taste for silver over gold, my refusal to wear (blood) diamonds and now this.... they really shake their heads at me at least 10 times a day. and it makes me giggle every.single.time :)

OKAY! i must run. the beauty of b'lore when the heat starts to pick up is that the current cuts out all afternoon. it just came back on and i thought i'd quickly pump out an update before we lose it again! so my apologies for a rushed, half-assed and unedited post. love to you all though!